As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally left the U.S. after a week of exhausting, and surprising, diplomatic highs and lows, a number of unsettling questions were left in his wake.
But perhaps the paramount question, the answer to which may well resolve many of the other mysteries in the seemingly increasingly troubled U.S.-Israel relationship is this: Who has been advising the Obama administration so poorly on the Israeli-Palestinian issue?
Many fiercely proud and patriotic Americans support Israel’s right to exist, to defend itself and to prosper in the same manner as any other country. These Americans, many of them Obama loyalists, watch with great dismay and puzzlement as U.S. Mideast policy takes erratic, disjointed and troubling directions – in particular with respect to Israel.
When Speaker of the House John Boehner first invited Netanyahu several weeks ago to address a joint meeting of Congress, the Republican leader could never have imagined the chain of events that would ultimately result from his gesture.
It appears the president’s decision to attempt to trump the prime minister’s address to Congress by delivering a sweeping foreign policy speech at the State Department – even before Netanyahu’s plane left Israel – came as a real surprise to the Israeli delegation. In that address, the president, among other things, called on Israel to essentially withdraw to the pre-1967 lines, a position never publicly espoused by previous administrations.
More disturbing, Obama advocated this new public position without asking much if anything of the PA or other Arab states in the region. (Saying the Arabs need to recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist is just not enough.)
Yet again the Obama administration’s Mideast policy placed unrealistic pressures and demands on Israel while simultaneously giving little weight to the continued incitement, violence and corruption endemic among the other Middle East players, including the Palestinian Authority.
The reportedly long-simmering tension between Obama and Netanyahu came to an immediate boil as Netanyahu strongly challenged Obama’s unilateral border demarcation of a future Palestinian entity – which of course would deprive Israel of a key future negotiating chip. Reportedly, when informed in advance of the substance of the president’s speech, Netanyahu “furiously” lobbied Secretary of State Clinton to remove the phrase “1967 lines.”
Those same sources say Clinton coldly rebuffed the prime minister’s request, refusing even to pass along the objections to the president.
What seems most difficult to comprehend, however, is why – knowing the reaction the speech would trigger – the president went ahead and ignited the controversy in the first place.
With little time for pundits and body language experts to interpret the consequences of the State Department speech and the following day’s contentious Oval Office press conference with Netanyahu, the president appeared at the annual AIPAC conference Sunday morning seeking to calm the storm and to explain or clarify the position he had expressed 72 hours earlier.
That exercise continued the high-stakes public relations drama between two of the world’s most complex and stubborn leaders, each searching for the right words to pacify his critics and electrify his base.
Having had the opportunity to personally witness Netanyahu’s speech to Congress – it felt like a State of the Union address, with the prime minister garnering twenty-nine standing ovations and continuous bipartisan applause – I must again ask, who advised President Obama to pick this particular fight at this particular time with Israel? And, more important, why?
The answers remain painfully unresolved. But given the obvious and widespread bipartisan opposition to the administration’s Israel policies, the president might wish to reevaluate the status of those in his inner circle who again guided his administration down this harmful, damaging and unnecessary path.
Unfortunately, it seems the J Street, Peace Now and Haaretz influence is all-pervasive when it comes to Obama’s Israel policy. Repeated contretemps with America’s most loyal and dependable Mideast ally are vivid indicators that those voices have not served the president well at all.
To avoid the backtracks, clarifications, snafus and misunderstandings that have generally plagued the administration’s approach to foreign policy in general and Mideast policy in particular – an approach that has done little to advance peace – the president would be well advised to seek the seasoned counsel and informed input of leaders like Lee Rosenberg of AIPAC and Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Perhaps, at least on matters pertaining to Israel, Obama might also consider consulting with (and listening to) trusted and experienced political allies such as his own vice president, Joe Biden (who appears shut out on this issue), Senator Charles Schumer, Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and others who clearly understand the vital necessity of a democratic, strong and secure Jewish state.
The outcome of such an overdue and necessary overhaul in strategy and strategists may greatly improve the elusive prospects for genuine peace in the Middle East, assuage frayed nerves in the pro-Israel community and, ultimately, determine the president’s success or failure in winning four more years in the White House.
Chaskel Bennett is a writer and community activist. He serves on the boards of several communal organizations.